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In the race to create slicker products, mobile phones are the new brains for hire.

At Ceatec, Japan’s largest electronics show, the booths are packed with the latest round of “smart” products, from cars that suggest what you should eat to fitness scales that tell you what not to. An increasing number now outsource their intelligence—processing, user interfaces, access to online services—to smartphones.

In one corner of the show floor, a large space is devoted to Nissan’s self-parking car concept, in which drivers rely on an Android phone to monitor and control a vehicle remotely. A few booths over, Panasonic is showing its smart appliance line, including refrigerators that upload how many times their doors have been opened and air conditioners that can be controlled from outside the home—again, via a mobile app.

Also featured are smart vacuum cleaners, home security cameras, and even personal thermometers, all of which rely on phones for control and access. Tech companies have long known that their products will one day evolve in this way, according to Mark Raskino, an analyst at Gartner, and the proliferation of advanced handsets has finally provided the means.

“The Internet-of-things story has been around forever, and we’ve just been waiting for it to happen,” he said. “The smartphone has become sort of the lingua franca of the general object, that gets past many of these issues.”

Jay Alabaster
Maspro shows its home security camera, which uses a smartphone to keep track of things at home while you’re away, at the Ceatec electronics show in Japan.
When companies bring new products to market, they can now leave out some expensive components, and avoid having to create user interfaces from scratch. Maspro, a Japanese firm whose strength is antennas and wireless signal processing gear, is showing a new business venture, wireless security cameras, at its Ceatec booth.

Its latest camera sends images to its owner via a smartphone, and users can remotely sound an alarm if they see anything suspicious.

“Everyone has a smartphone these days. We can offload a lot of the processing to these phones,” said Shintaro Yano, from the company’s business development group.

“People already know how to use smartphones, so our product is also easy to use,” he added.

Other firms have had to retrench as smartphones undermine their products. Clarion, which makes several lines of car navigation systems, launched a new model earlier this year that relies on the iPhone for many basic features, and the company is showing an upcoming Android version at Ceatec.

The new models cost around $260, roughly a fifth of a traditional system, because they are far simpler, as well as easier to install.

“There is no need for navigation or GPS functions as they are already in the phone. These devices are more for interacting with phones, putting the apps on a larger screen, with speakers and voice interaction,” said Yasutaka Oda, a company spokesman.

Offloading such functionality may mean that smart products have a longer shelf life, as they effectively get an upgrade every time their users purchases a new handset. The frenetic pace of innovation in phones currently outpaces that in other products, notes Tadayuki Shinozaki, an analyst at Japan’s MM Research Institute.

“Phone specifications will continue to get better, particularly in areas like the main processor,” he said.

Jay Alabaster
Omron’s new line of health-monitoring gadgets all rely on mobile phones to retrieve and upload their data, then allow users to access it later.
Smart products will also continue to “check in” after they have been sold, providing manufacturers with a flood of new data about their products and users. In its booth at Ceatec, Omron Healthcare is showing a new line of gadgets for users to check their vital signs, including thermometers, scales and sleep monitors, which sync with phones and upload their health data to Omron’s “WellnessLink” service.

As smart features become more common, conflicts are likely to arise between the various business that get pulled into the mix—electronics manufacturers like Omron, smartphone developers like Samsung Electronics, map and software providers such as Google, and network operators like NTT DoCoMo in Japan.

Jay Alabaster
An attendee at Ceatec, Japan’s largest consumer electronics show, examines a home security offering from Maspro that uses mobile phones.
Toyota is showing its Internet-savvy “Smart INSECT” concept car at Ceatec that tracks a driver’s habits to provide destination and restaurant suggestions, with the Internet portion provided by a phone that sits on the dashboard. The concept means, of course, that other players in the chain could have access to data gathered through the car company’s innovations.

For this reason, analysts like Gartner’s Raskino feel that the reliance of consumer electronics on smartphones may be a temporary phenomenon.

“The smartphone as the single point of control for everything is pragmatic at the moment,” he said. “It is possible that the functionality gets reabsorbed back into the objects several years down the line.”

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